Social anxiety: Negative Automatic Thoughts NATs

In cognitive behavioural therapy, social anxiety is rooted in thoughts.

The central concept in cognitive behavioural therapy is:

  • what you think = what you feel (and do)

If you think negative thoughts, you get negative feelings.

For example, if you think negative thoughts like “they think I am weird” or “they don’t like me” or “I don’t deserve this” or “I cannot look weak in front of others” or “I’m useless” or “I’m an idiot”, you will experience negative emotions like fear and anxiety.

So changing these negative thoughts into positive ones is the basis for overcoming social anxiety.

We are thinking all the time. We think about things that happen to us, or around us. We think about what has happened in the past, or what may happen in the future.  What we think, is filtered through our beliefs and strongly held opinions. This gives meaning to what happens to us. And the meaning we give to something is the most important part. It is the meaning we give something, that produces the strongest feelings.

Normally, we don’t put into words some of our deeply held thoughts and beliefs. They are just there. But when you want to make a change, you need to focus on the thoughts and beliefs that are holding you back. You need to focus on what you are telling yourself all day long. You need to focus on the meaning this is producing for you. You need to focus on this, because the meaning it has for you, produces the strongest effect over how you feel and how you do things.

You need to know what your negative thoughts are. The best way to do this is to get a pen and paper out right now. Start writing down some of the thoughts you have about yourself on the paper. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Just write a few statements you have about yourself, like “I am….” or “I should…”. You need to write this down. You cannot just think it. Your thoughts are too fast and fleeting for this. You need to write this down so you can catch the negative thoughts you have about yourself. Writing it down gives your mind something to focus on. Stop reading this now. Get that pen and paper. And start writing now.

Generally, these negative thoughts occur automatically. That is why they use the term Negative Automatic Thoughts NATs, or Automatic Negative Thoughts ANTs. Both terms mean the same thing.

These negative automatic thoughts NATs represent the rules for your reality. The rules by which you live. They give meaning to what happens to you, and around you, and what has happened in the past, and what may happen in the future.

Changing these negative automatic thoughts NATs, will change your life. Changing these negative automatic thoughts into positive automatic thoughts, will change the way you feel, and the way you do things. It is not easy to do this, but it can be done. The first step is to write them down.

Here are some examples of negative automatic thoughts:

  • I am useless
  • I am an idiot
  • They think badly of me
  • They don’t like me
  • I am weird
  • I look foolish
  • I am stupid
  • I am boring
  • I am no good
  • I am odd
  • I am inferior
  • I am inadequate
  • I am unlikeable
  • I can’t change
  • I am trapped
  • There is no hope for me
  • I will lose control and expose myself
  • Everyone is watching me
  • Everyone is judging me
  • People don’t like me because I am quiet
  • People don’t like me because I am nervous
  • I must appear interesting, otherwise people will not like me
  • If the conversation doesn’t go well, it is my fault
  • Why am I a complete disaster?
  • I do not belong here
  • They can see how anxious I look
  • This is terrible
  • I am always doing the wrong thing

I know I sound like a broken record on this, but this is important. Write the thoughts and beliefs you have about yourself on a piece of paper. You may find you can add to the list later on, or that it changes over time. But, write them down now.

Summary

We are thinking all the time. The thoughts we think, affect how we feel. Negative thoughts = negative feelings. Positive thoughts = positive feelings. This is the key to overcoming social anxiety in cognitive behavioural therapy. When you feel good and think positive thoughts, you do positive things. It is hard to change the way you think. It is hard to change how you perceive reality. But it can be done. It takes effort and persistence. But the results are worth it.

Take care,

Paul

Paul at Coniston Water, Lake District, UK.
Dr Paul Ogilvie